It will be a long time before anyone associated with South Dakota women’s basketball forgets what that program accomplished in 2017-18.
Under the direction of head coach Dawn Plitzuweit, the Coyotes navigated the Summit League with a perfect 14-0 record, becoming the first team – men’s or women’s – to win the conference’s regular season championship with an undefeated record in 24 years.
Unfortunately for USD, the celebration soured at the hands of archrival South Dakota State in the championship game of the Summit League Tournament.
South Dakota did rebound with a solid run to the WNIT quarterfinals, which included an especially thrilling win over Michigan State, but that really just confirmed what most of us already believed.
USD was good enough to be playing in the Big Dance, and that one ill-timed defeat was the only thing that got in the way.
Scheduling For Strength
It’s no secret that one of the first things the NCAA selection committee and fans of marginal Power Five teams point to in March is the lack of quality opponents – much less wins – on a mid-major’s schedule.
The Summit League and other conferences like it are labeled, many times appropriately, as “one-bid leagues.” However, coaches, administrators, fans and journalists in this region have been clamoring for that to change.
Last year’s group wasn’t the first Coyote team that seemed worthy of an at-large berth. The other, of course, featured my coworker Kelly Stewart. All they did was go on to win the 2016 WNIT Championship.
It’s pretty clear that those postseason successes have done little to change the perception of the committee, which means there’s really only one other thing to try: schedule and beat as many Power Five and top mid-major teams as possible.
That certainly appeared be the approach from Plitzuweit and her staff as they put together this season’s non-conference schedule, which features the likes of Creighton, Drake, Iowa State, Green Bay, Missouri and Indiana. In all, nine of the 14 teams South Dakota faced finished in the top-150 of the RPI last season with five in the top 65. Five were NCAA Tournament teams.
It was daunting to say the least, but the Coyotes handled it about as well as anyone could have hoped. They finished 12-2 and became the first Summit League team to beat two AP Top 25 teams in the same season.
Will that be enough to sway the decision-makers if the Coyotes miss out on The Summit League’s automatic bid?
At this point, that’s an impossible question to answer. But South Dakota would rather not leave it up to them anyway.
Starting the March
South Dakota began defense of its latest Summit League title Saturday with a dominating, albeit a little sluggish, 67-41 win at North Dakota State.
That was USD’s 15th consecutive conference win, but that is of very little concern to anyone within that program.
The entire focus right now is on continued progress, not perfection.
As well as the Coyotes have played, coaches will tell you that this team has not yet approached its peak. That’s saying something for a team that ranks either first or second in the Summit League in every major defensive category and is no lower than fourth in anything offensively.
So, how close is South Dakota reaching top of its game? This week won’t give us a definitive answer, but it should be a pretty good indication.
USD is slated to visit a dangerous Denver team (8-7, 1-1 SL) Thursday before returning home to host round one of the South Dakota Showdown Series against South Dakota State (9-5, 1-0 SL) Sunday afternoon at the Sanford Coyote Sports Center.
While the early returns have been overwhelmingly positive, there’s no way to know exactly what kind of history these Coyote women will create over the next few months.
For the time being, it appears South Dakota’s fans should prepare for another long and memorable ride.